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The Alternatives

Adam Oxford finds three South African innovators who are working to phase out unsustainable materials.

1. Paper For Plastic

The Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA) has been highly influential in helping the country meet and exceed paper recycling targets. But it also has a R1-million a year research and development arm, which offers bursaries to postgraduates investigating new purposes for pulp and paper products.

One of the flagship pieces of research currently being developed is a process for turning paper waste into plastics such as polyurethane. The process uses lignin, the glue that holds cells together.

“Currently lignin can be used for building materials and insulation,” says executive director Jane Molony. New processes, however, show promise that it will be able to replace a variety of common plastics.

“We’re not saying that plastic is terrible,” Molony says. “But we have to work together to reduce the amount of packaging we use, and develop paper-based alternatives that are lightweight and designed to be recycled.”

“The biggest issue right now is obtaining enough fibre to manufacture in bulk,” says Mike Nash, head of PAMSA’s Process Research Unit. “Most of the material is from waste fibre so we’re not taking logs from the current timber and paper industry.”

One particularly exciting development, says Molony, is that many of the elements required to manufacture alternatives to fossil fuel products can be found in “black liquor”, which is the waste left over after treating wood pulp to turn it into paper fibre.

“Currently, the black liquor is often used to power furnaces and produce energy and steam,” Molony says. “But it’s possible to extract a portion of that liquor to obtain lignin and other green chemicals.”

The most important thing, of course, is that unlike fossil fuel-based plastic, trees are a renewable resource.

2. A Marble Finish

Natural stone finishes are very much in fashion for kitchen designers, but how sustainable are they? Marble and granite are long lasting and can be reused, but open cast mining is energy intensive and has been linked to environmental issues such as pollution of local water sources, according to a 2016 report in Environmental Earth Sciences which investigated mines in Turkey.

Caesarstone, its manufacturers claim, is more hardwearing, more hygienic (because it’s nonporous) and more sustainable to produce than natural stone slabs.

Interslab’s Megan Noel describes Caesarstone as an “engineered quartz” surface, which is made of ground quartz bonded with resins, polymer and pigment, producing a natural looking surface with additional benefits. Where possible, the raw materials come from recycled sources, and there’s little waste generated in the process.

“It’s important that the public can make more informed decisions,” Noel says. “We tend to be well informed about small things, such as clothes and food, but don’t have so much information about the big things like building materials.”

Vetiver grass

3. The Other Man’s Grass

Volunteers from The Habitat Foundation in KwaZulu-Natal have been working with a local community near King Shaka Airport to help them cultivate food gardens and vetiver grass. Vetiver, which is related to sorghum, is used for weaving and thatching. The group regularly run workshops with local women, unemployed groups and a blind school, teaching people how to make rope and crafts from the grass.

While it’s early days, vetiver has also proven to be a promising plant for use in biofuel refining. As an alternative to current plants, such as cane sugar, it can be grown in a wider range of environments (including semi-arid biomes) and extracts more COfrom the atmosphere while growing.

“The grass can also be used for cleansing water sources and eliminating pollutants from topsoil,” says Habitat Foundation’s Robin Maharaj. “We’re a fledgling organisation at the moment, but we have been given some land in Dube Tradeport to expand our work.”

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